Profile: Indigenous activist competes in London Marathon to draw attention to pressures on Amazon communities

Nixiwaka Yawanawá training for the London Marathon. (Photo: Survival International, used with permission)

Indigenous people in Brazil’s Amazon region continue to suffer violence, intimidation and forced displacement from their lands — usually at the hands of interests tied to big business and development. To highlight the issue, one activist from the Brazilian Amazon is running this year’s London marathon. Sam Cowie reports from London.

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Sitting in a central London office, Nixiwaka Yawanawa performs a traditional song of the Yawanawá — one of at least 12 indigenous nationalities in the Brazilian state of Acre.

For the past four years Yawanawa has lived in the UK, visiting schools to raise awareness of the Amazon and its peoples – and the modern-day pressures on both.

“Looking further in the future, I think it’s the only way as well that the new generation will look towards tribal people in a different way; with more respect and understanding,” Yawanawa says. “I’ve been visiting them and talking with them, and telling them that the rainforest is home for millions of tribal peoples. The way of life, the animals, the importance of nature for our life, for the planet. They’re very happy to welcome me and they get very interested in the subject. And they want to do something to help.”

Yawanawa urges those who do want to help to evaluate their consumption habits. This includes consuming less of what is not necessary and to be aware of products’ ingredients and origins.

The young man came to the UK to learn English so that he could better defend indigenous rights in an international arena. He did so inspired by his father, who visited the United States in the 1980s. Yawanawa says he grapples with his own conflict while living abroad as he tries to make a positive contribution to the Amazon while participating in the very consumption-based lifestyle fueling its destruction.

“At the same time I’m working to protect, but because I’m consuming things, and living, I might be consuming stuff that comes from tribal lands,” he explains. “And I don’t know, so in some way I’m contributing– and I’m sorry about that – but we can’t hide this reality. I just try not to consume too much.”

This Sunday, Yawanawa will become the first Amazon Indian to compete in the annual London marathon.

Yawanawa says that he is running the marathon in protest and to raise awareness of the situation of indigenous people in Brazil: “It’s everything: injustice, intimidation, racism, prejudice and violation of our rights especially – we do have rights recognized by the country since 1988, so those rights are being violated and we’re still suffering a lot.”

Recognition of indigenous peoples’ land rights are enshrined in Brazil’s constitution, which took effect in 1988 after the country’s return to democracy from a 25-year-long military dictatorship.

Yawanawa’s participation in the marathon comes as Brazilian lawmakers discuss a proposed constitutional amendment that would give land demarcation powers to Congress, which includes politicians linked to powerful agribusiness groups. The amendment could seriously undermine recognition of indigenous territorial claims and allow developers, cattle ranchers and extractive industries to encroach on indigenous lands.

Fiona Watson of Survival International, an indigenous peoples advocacy group based in London, says that legal recognition of territorial rights underpins the long-term prospects for indigenous societies.

“They’re the ultimate self-sufficient societies,” remarks Watson. “They can live perfectly happily, without any aid or interference from outside. It’s up to them when they want to make contact; nobody’s saying they should live in a zoological park. But in order to survive, their land rights must be respected and it’s perfectly possible to do this.”

Industries like logging, mining and oil and gas extraction have already created serious conflicts within indigenous territories in the Amazon regions of Peru and Ecuador, countries that have considerably weaker laws with regards to indigenous land recognition.

Yawanawa hopes that when he returns to Brazil later this year, he can use the skills he has learned from his experience abroad to empower indigenous people and raise further awareness among civil society.

“It will be a change after living in this concrete jungle – then I will go to a real jungle.”

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